A Taxonomy of Silence: Silence Like a Cancer Grows Part 1

It is hard enough to understand words. What can we learn from silences?

Posted Nov 27, 2013

“Silence like a cancer grows…”

Simon and Garfunkle, Sound of Silence, 1964.

When I was young, I wanted to be like Dr. Doolittle and to be able to speak animal languages. To some degree, I have learned this skill. I can speak to dogs, cats, horses, and some birds, including wild parrots on my trees. I can understand them, and they can understand me. Sometimes it includes vocalizations, but mostly not. Parrots are an exception. They require both vocalization and playful dancing. Most of the time, body language and context suffice. Silence in a parrot may signify uncertainty. A silent parrot may have spotted a predator or be experiencing a novel experience. Sometimes parrots happily groom themselves or bliss out in other ways, without noise. But when they are in a relationship, they vocalize. Happy parrots are pretty loud! Animals may be silent for long periods, like cats or dogs, but vocalize to threaten, to express needs, or to express solidarity.

 It has taken me far longer to understand how to interpret human silences. They can be as pregnant as …a pause. As trivial as a breath. A signifier of impending attack or assault, or simply slow speed in normal communication. I am going to try to summarize what I understand now about human silences, but this is a work in progress and I would invite people to add more insights.

 In normal human life, noise is the rule. We talk and chatter like parrots or geckos, using our faces and bodies to convey all sorts of information. Silences may be benevolent, or they may scream across screens and time. The phone that does not ring or email that does not arrive may be worse than imagined consequences, worse than some linkage at all. Here is my effort to decode and organize silence and its meanings.

Appropriate silences

These are the silences we hear in crowded elevators, or at religious services or retreats. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist monks seek long periods of silent retreat for meditation and spiritual awakening. Through their silences, they seek to learn the secrets of God or the universe or nirvana.

Meditation or mindfulness is not reserved for monks, and is now routinely taught to everybody from pain patients to faculty members at major universities. There are some forms of meditation that involve chanting or vocalization. For example, in certain Tibetan forms of Buddhism, it is not uncommon to chant “Om, mani padme om” loosely translated as “the jewel in the lotus” as one works around a circle of 108 beads. Western mindfulness training is usually silent, and uses the Buddhist Vipassana technique of following the breath to calm the mind. Silent retreats have become common in Western Buddhist practices. Silent meditation has been adapted as a therapeutic technique in dialectical behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorders and other problems. 

In elevators, on planes, or at medical waiting rooms, we are silent to respect privacy and personal boundaries with strangers. Lack of silence in these circumstances can be disrespectful.

Trivial silences

A long breath or cough. A “senior moment” to gather one’s thoughts. An ordinary pause, like a paragraph, to collect one’s thoughts. The sounds of contented chewing at dinner. We disregard these silences as normal, and physiological.

Silences due to externalities

From a slow internet to illness, sometimes a silence is just a failure to communicate. A flat tire, a broken phone line, a power outage, a sick child or personal illness attenuates good talk. There are times when people, loved ones, are just busy or preoccupied or unavailable. It is always possible the phone doesn’t ring because the septic tank overflowed. In Costa Rica, a “Tico goodbye” happens when the telephone abruptly goes quiet due to power, phone or Internet failures. None of these has much social meaning. We learn to forget and forgive them.

Respectful silences, deep listening

This is the first tool of therapy, and of conflict resolution in general. The therapist is quiet to listen, to understand. It is a receptive quiet, waiting for the full story. Waiting for a person in distress to let it all out. Waiting for another person to find words or images with which to communicate. A wonderful kind of silence, it is a silence that opens up space to another, allowing for improved communication and understanding.

 Saltatory communications

My girlfriend from 8th grade contacts me once every few years, and I am always happy to hear from her. There is no cut-off or hostility. We pick up as though no time had gone by. Another friend of more than 35 years contacts me several times a year, and it is always a pleasure. We have deep ties, deep communication. Time has no meaning. The silence meant nothing other than we were busy with ordinary life.


It is always possible that people just don’t care. Silence can just mean no more than that. Lack of priority. Lack of care or commitment or constancy or fidelity. No comments mean no interest, care or connection.

Hopeful cut-offs

Some relationships just die their own deaths. There is nothing more to be said. So a gradual diminishment of communication and contact signifies that the end is coming, but it is not necessarily hostile or hateful, but just over and done, or doomed.

Hostile communications

Who has not been in a relationship at one time or another when a loved one slammed down the phone and cut off the conversation? Who has not been in a situation in which a loved one stalked out and slammed the door? The silence, the absence, is a hatchet. It is meant to carve the heart out of the other. A sudden silence, coming during a conflict, without means to continue dialogue or communication, is almost a lethal weapon and intended as such. A silence can be a scream.